Though he's based in Brooklyn, trombonist/composer Matthew Hartnett is a southern boy at heart. Those roots are unearthed on Hartnett's debut album, Southern Comfort, to be released on February 19. Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and raised in Houston, Texas, Hartnett's music ranges from New Orleans brass band sounds and the gospel celebration of the southern church, to Houston's homegrown "chopped and screwed" sound and the smooth soul that has landed him on stages with the likes of Talib Kweli, Lauryn Hill, Robert Glasper and Kirk Franklin.
"All the things that made me the musician that I am are derived from the south," Hartnett says. "Southern Comfort embodies my style and music in words."
Joining Hartnett on the album is a skilled band made up of the cream of the trombonist's first-call colleagues. Sharing the frontline with him are several members of "#TeamHornSection," the franchised line-up of crack horn players (with a branch based in Europe as well) that can deliver sharp playing and impressive dance moves on demand. Propelling them is a deeply funky rhythm section featuring keyboardist Ondrej Pevic, bassist Dmitri Gorodetsky, guitarist (and fellow Lake Charles native) James Lewis, and drummer Adam Jackson.
The precision of that band is shown off to full effect on a tune like "No Patience," which Hartnett suggests could also bear the alternate title "How I Feel About New York." The song's frenetic pace and anxious, stuttering rhythms capture the metropolis' vigorous energy at its most alluring, but Hartnett hasn't always found the adjustment from the friendlier, more laid-back south to be an easy one. He traces that tension, and the breadth of his journey, throughout Southern Comfort.
"Culturally, it's completely night and day," Hartnett says of the contrast between his two home cities. "Everything in Houston is easy and comfortable; there's not much struggle going on. In New York, you have to fight every second and money drives everything, but in the south the culture is more about family. What I like about Brooklyn is the opportunity to be around a bunch of other young, progressive, cultured black people."
Hartnett originally picked up the trombone in 6th grade band. Originally attracted to the clarinet, peer pressure necessitated a switch when he found himself surrounded by girls in the band room. After making his way to the more testosterone-heavy low brass section, he quickly established himself as first chair trombonist, a position he maintained throughout his school years. Hartnett continued his music studies at Texas Southern University, where he was a proud member of the renowned Ocean of Soul marching band. Those days are commemorated in the muscular "Pump and Drive," whose title refers to one of the band's signature drill moves.
Unlike many of his peers, Hartnett wasn't obsessed with music as a kid. As he says, "I wasn't a music geek growing up; I was an athlete and kind of a thug. When my colleagues were 16 they were learning about Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. I didn't know nothing about that stuff. I knew about football, I knew about the streets, and I listened to Swishahouse."
For the uninitiated, Swishahouse is a North Houston record label dedicated to the city's "chopped and screwed" hip-hop sound, innovated by DJ Screw and characterized by slowed-down tempos and skipped beats. Southern Comfort closes with a sharp turn into screwed music with "Da Crib," featuring samples from some of Hartnett's favorite songs and vocals by LaChrisha Brown. "That track is probably not for everybody," Hartnett allows, "but if you're from Houston you're gonna know what's up when that track come on."
On the flip side of Hartnett's upbringing is his dedication to the church, which is the source of several compositions. "I Surrender All" opens the album with some deeply felt testifying on trombone, accompanied only by organ. The robust grooves of "Thursday Night" were inspired by Houston's citywide church rehearsal night. "If you're a working musician in Houston, on Thursday night you're busy," Hartnett laughs.
"New Sun Light Lake Charles" is named for the church Hartnett attended in the city of his birth, where he spent his summers growing up. Both it and "Glory Glory," a compendium of gospel melodies set to a brass band beat, reflect the second line rhythms of New Orleans. While the Crescent City is on the opposite side of the state from Lake Charles, Hartnett didn't have to travel far to glean its influence: both before and especially after Hurricane Katrina, many New Orleanians relocated to Houston, bringing their brass band culture with them.
"If you go to Dallas or Austin you're not going to ask for gumbo or crawfish or étouffée," Hartnett says. "That doesn't exist anywhere in Texas except Houston. All the things that you know and love as a product of Louisiana you can get in Houston. That's my comfort zone."
From the time he landed his first professional gig in a Houston nightclub, Hartnett quickly established himself as one of the go-to sidemen for artists traveling through the city. He carried that reputation with him when he relocated to New York City in 2010, and has since accompanied countless R&B, gospel, and hip-hop superstars. "In and Out" shows off his more soulful side, in the musical sense; in the personal sense, he bares his soul on "She's in Spain" and "Summer 2011," which movingly chart his relationship with his now ex-wife.
Southern Comfort features an adept band playing a wide range of styles, but Hartnett wasn't looking to show off his diversity, he insists. "That's always been my musical preference. I guess it's just in me. We tend to gravitate toward things that resonate with us, and from gospel and Negro spirituals to R&B, that music resonates with me. I feed the music and the music feeds me."
Matthew Hartnett · Southern Comfort
D2LAL MMC · Release Date: February 19, 2016